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Heralding Our History: Durham’s early history forged in the fire of an iron furnace

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Iron ore, limestone and wood for charcoal, the three main ingredients for 18th century iron making were all abundant in the area now called Durham Township.

In 1727, 12 investors from London, including William Allen (the founder of Allentown), James Logan (William Penn’s secretary), Jeremiah Langhorne, Clement Plumstead, John Hopkins, and Anthony Morris seized the opportunity to acquire the rights to more than 9,000 acres of land and built an iron furnace and forge along the banks of Cooks Creek.

The iron ore, at first, was extracted through surface mining but later deep shafts were constructed to mine the ore. The furnace’s bellows were driven by a water wheel, which in turn used water from the nearby creek as its power source. Crews of men, including at least seven slaves, were employed to mine the ore, dig the limestone and to turn the nearby forest into charcoal.

Most of the iron produced was pig iron and it was transported to Philadelphia, at first by horse-drawn wagons and later by Durham boats, to be further processed into useful iron implements.

Later, the furnace achieved great distinction for its production of musket and cannon balls used in both the French and Indian War and the American War of Independence.

One of the most important iron masters at the furnace was George Taylor, who despite coming to the colonies as a lowly indentured servant, advanced to the top position at the furnace and held important political positions, culminating in his being a signer of the Declaration of Independence (one of only two non-native born signers). Taylor’s home, known as the mansion house, burned shortly after his death but a replacement home was built upon its foundation walls and exists today as a private residence.

Another early owner of the furnace was Joseph Galloway, who gained great notoriety by becoming one of the most noted Tories of his time. He vigorously fought against the colonies breaking away from British rule. As a result, he was named a traitor and had his possessions confiscated by the colonial government. This included his stake in the Durham Iron Furnace.

However, he had come into possession of the furnace through his marriage, and his wife, who was a staunch believer in the revolution, sued to have the property returned to her. Although her suit was not settled for many years (in fact, not until after her death) it was found in her favor and ownership passed to her daughter as part of her estate.

This was one of the first times that a woman was recognized by an American government to have the right of ownership of property. Up until then, property in a woman’s possession (usually through inheritance) became the property of her husband upon marriage.

Durham Furnace continued producing iron at its original location from 1727 to circa 1790. A new facility was subsequently built about half-mile downstream.

Besides cannon and musket balls, iron cookware including pots, skillets and trivets as well as fire backs and iron stoves were produced. Despite some sources claiming that cannons were produced here, there is no clear evidence that this is true.

In 1820, Judge William Long erected a large gristmill on the foundation walls of the old furnace. This mill continued producing flour and animal feed for the next 147 years, when it was closed in 1967. It now stands proudly in the center of the village, a testament to the colorful history of the area.

David Oleksa is president of Durham Historical Society.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.


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